Wednesday, June 07, 2006
The Al Jolson impersonator
In the early part of the twentieth century their was an odd form of musical entertainment in which white men painted their face black and put on a minstrel show. They then sang & danced like "Negroes". As American society progressed minstrel was thought to be offensive and rapidly diminished in popularity and faded from view.
The most famous of the minstrels was Al Jolson. His biography was one of the first black and white movie musicals produced. In my youth this movie was frequently played in NY on Channel 9 around the Jewish Holdays. This film was somewhat of a mainstay for my family in the fifties. Jolson was superstar of my families immigrant generation being one of the few highly identified American Jewish entertainers of the time .
His saga "The Jolson Story" depicts Jolsons psychic clash between modern and traditional music. Culminating on the High Holiday of Yom Kippur where he must solve the dilemma of whether to sing the Kol Nidre for his people or perform his vaudeville for an audience . An unforgettable scene where one hears his fantastic cantorial tenor chant the prayer near his Mothers death bed.
As a youth my cousin impersonated Jolson at family functions where he lip synched a heart stopping, tear jerking rendition of "MAMMY". A song that made Jolson famous.
To this day almost fifty years later my cousin Steve has been known to still belt out this tune. People fondly remember Jolson and have asked him to perform this number. Believe it or not Steve has now traveled around the country making Jolson come alive again. I think he symbolizes the coming of age of a new era in both entertainment and civil rights. A blurring if you will of two important cultures in American society. For better or for worse some folks have nostalgic feelings for this American/Jewish icon.